Psychedelic substance in ‘magic mushrooms’ can alleviate depression

BALTIMORE, Md. — Researchers say “magic mushrooms” produce hallucinations and “profound changes in consciousness” a few hours after ingestion. Historically, these tiny pieces of fungi have been considered nothing more than a recreational drug with no real medicinal value. A groundbreaking new study may change all of that for people suffering from depression. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine reveal that just two doses of a particular compound found in the psychedelic drug can really help do away with depressive symptoms.

Researchers say this substance is called psilocybin, the ingredient which gives magic mushrooms their psychedelic properties. Importantly, participants in this study also received traditional supportive psychotherapy in combination with the two psychedelic doses. Most subjects showed rapid and significant improvement in their mental state over the course of a four-week follow-up period. About half achieved full-blown remission of depressive symptoms.

“The magnitude of the effect we saw was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market,” says Alan Davis, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, in a university release. “Because most other depression treatments take weeks or months to work and may have undesirable effects, this could be a game changer if these findings hold up in future ‘gold-standard’ placebo-controlled clinical trials.”

Sit back, listen to music, let depression fade away

Admittedly, this was a rather small experiment involving only 24 people. Each subject received two five-hour psilocybin sessions under strict supervision. All participants had been dealing with depression for a long time, had an average age of 39 years-old, and had to stop taking any prescribed antidepressants to ensure no drug interactions took place. After each dose, subjects sat back on a couch, wore eyeshades, and listened to music through headphones.

Researchers admitted they’re surprised at how helpful psilocybin appears to be for different patients suffering from various forms of depression.

“Because there are several types of major depressive disorders that may result in variation in how people respond to treatment, I was surprised that most of our study participants found the psilocybin treatment to be effective,” says Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

This isn’t the first time research has revealed a link between psilocybin and depression relief. In 2016, researchers at Johns Hopkins determined psilocybin “significantly relieved existential anxiety and depression in people with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.” This time around, researchers wanted to see if psilocybin could help with major depressive disorder, a much more common form of depression.

Psilocybin yields dramatic turnaround

Both before and after each psilocybin treatment, researchers measured feelings of depression among participants using the GRID-Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. That scale operates on a spectrum of 1-24+. Ratings of 24 or more suggests severe depression, 17-23 is associated with moderate depression, 8-16 is considered mild depression, and seven or less typically means no depression.

Before starting the psychedelic treatment, participants averaged a depression score of 23. By both the one and four-week post treatment marks, the average depression score among subjects dropped to only eight.

In all, two-thirds of participants who took psilocybin showed an over 50 percent improvement in their depressive symptoms one week post treatment. Even more (71%) showed big improvements after four weeks.

“I believe this study to be a critically important proof of concept for the medical approval of psilocybin for treatment of depression, a condition I have personally struggled with for decades,” says entrepreneur, philanthropist, and study funder Tim Ferriss. “How do we explain the incredible magnitude and durability of effects? Treatment research with moderate to high doses of psychedelics may uncover entirely new paradigms for understanding and improving mood and mind. This is a taste of things to come from Johns Hopkins.”

Now, the research team wants to continue to keep tabs on this study’s participants for the next year. They’ll be looking to see just how long the psychedelic treatment provides depression relief.

The study is published in JAMA Psychiatry.

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